Album review

Matthew Stevens – ‘Pittsburgh’

Matthew Stevens – Pittsburgh
(Whirlwind Recordings. Album review by Rob Mallows)

Matthew Stevens should fall off his bike more often. It’s not that I’m wishing any harm should come to the Canadian guitarist, who recently celebrated becoming a US citizen, but rather it’s a comment on the quality of his playing on this new solo album, Pittsburgh. The idea of the album came about after Stevens fell off said bike on a rainy Pittsburgh day and – treating it as some sort of sign from the heavens – felt compelled to write, and write, and write, turning sketched ideas into full compositions.

I enjoyed Stevens’ output on his last major release – 2017’s Preverbal  (REVIEWED HERE). It was chock-full of his vibrant, at times almost metronomic, playing and archly contemporary compositions. 

Since then, of course, much has happened, not least the recent pandemic and a lockdown, which led to Stevens taking refuge in his wife’s hometown of Pittsburgh and picking up his vintage Martin guitar, prior to ending up in plaster. He used the subsequent (enforced) hiatus to good effect.

Pittsburgh is a solo acoustic album, something which – Stevens notes in the accompanying press release – is a “great way to develop a touch and a connection to an instrument.” Judging by this album, Stevens and his guitar became the best of friends during this long, long period of enforced inaction which evidently brought the best out of man and guitar.

Now, when I say solo album, it really is. It’s a totally stripped down version of Stevens as a guitarist: unvarnished and starkly simplistic. Just one guy, one guitar, two microphones, and a lot of inspiration and perspiration in equal measure. It’s guitar playing as physical therapy (which, in fact, it was: a way of keeping his guitar playing muscles from atrophying while his elbow healed).

Opening tracks Ambler and Purpose of a Machine show that Stevens came through this hard-knock experience relatively unscathed and, by the sounds of it, enthused. I enjoy Stevens’ terrific touch on the guitar – always very considered, never overplaying anything – and every note on this album really sings out of the speakers. And that first class technique is evident on every track.

There are no overdubs. This is seemingly one-touch and go stuff, and all the more impressive for that. Each idea birthed, nurtured, schooled and set free with little mediation or caution. Every squeak of the strings on frets is transmitted. Each slide of the fingers up the fretboard capturing the indentation of whorl on string. The recording captures the sound of a musician hard at work, so listening with headphones becomes an absolute must for getting the most out of this recording.

The falling arpeggios tumble from the speakers, abutted with filthy, luscious chords that just hang in the air, demanding access to your inner ear, as you’ll hear well on tracks like Buckets and Blue Blues. Stevens also goes smooth on Foreign Ghosts, which is so languid as to be almost passed out on the sofa.

Throughout the album are knowing hat-tips to jazz guitar greats like John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny. While Stevens cannot yet claim admittance to the same pantheon as these and other six-string gods, he’s got a foot in the door and is shouting to come in. 

However, ultimately man cannot live on bread alone and while the music is great, after 11 tracks of unadulterated acoustic guitar I was left somewhat aurally sated. But, it is churlish to complain when the album offers enough spine-tingling moments where wavelength and amplitude combine to kiss your eardrums into submission. 

I prefer Stevens’ music a little more adorned. That said, I’m very glad I listened to this.

LINK: Pittsburgh on Bandcamp

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